The latest in our series on beekeeping for a village magazine – written for non-beekeepers, and to suit the broad range of ages and knowledge among the readers.
The poor spring seems to have both delayed and reduced the number of swarms this year but, after a bit of scrambling after them up trees, my hives are now all populated and I’m able to observe the new colonies building up. The two large ‘prime’ swarms I caught had good numbers and a fertile queen, so have progressed quickly, building lots of comb and raising young bees. I also have two smaller afterswarms or ‘casts’, these are less developed as they start off with smaller numbers and a new virgin queen that needs to be mated – with fewer numbers they must work a finer balance of the competing demands of feeding themselves, guarding the hive, and raising young. However, once the new queen is successfully mated, the casts should build up well given time and good foraging.
I am still getting a few calls about swarms. This year we have to take precautions if these are from Oxford, Islip or Woodstock as some cases of a bee disease called American Foul Brood have been reported there – possibly re-introduced to the region by someone leaving a jar of imported honey open for bees to finish off. These can contain disease spores, which is why people should only feed bees sugar-water (or honey from the bees’ own hive).
Sometimes the swarm calls are for bumblebees, which we don’t collect as their delicate nests rarely survive transplanting. There is only one species of honey bee in the UK, Apis mellifera, but there are 24 species of bumblebee ranging from the familiar large round furry yellow and black ones (probably Bombus terrestris) to much smaller ones of varying colours which are not always as easy to identify. Our usual advice is to let bumblebees be; they will only ever build up to a few hundred individuals, they are peaceful, and the nest will die out in Autumn- it won’t persist for years. Just block the entrance hole once they’ve died in winter, so nothing else sets up home next year.
There are many other solitary bee species – over 240 in the UK – which attract less attention than the social ones. Some types can be lured to your garden by putting stacks of hollow tubes (‘bee hotels’) in sunny spots at head height: they lay their eggs in these with supplies of pollen to eat, then seal the tubes with mud or leaves. The most noticeable ones in our area being: red mason bees (Osmia bicornis), which love local Cotswold stone walls’ nooks and crannies (and bee hotels); tawny miner bees (Andrena fulva) thrive in our soil (look for ‘mini volcanoes’ in sandy patches); and leafcutter bees (Megachile centuncularis) who re-use mason bee holes once the mason bees have hatched. This year, we’re also seeing ‘black bumblebees’ which are in fact not bumblebees at all but hairy footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes). There are also parasitic cuckoo bees which lay their eggs in another bee species’ nest, and three other UK species nest in old snail shells!
Different bee species feed on different groups of flowers. Honey bees fixate on one type for a day (‘flower constancy’), and carry pollen only in specialised “baskets” on their back legs (visible as distinct large colourful lumps of pollen). In contrast, solitary bees and bumblebees tend to be hairy all over, and whilst some specialise in particular plants, others are generalists and simply get covered in a dust of multicoloured pollen. This is better for pollinating certain plants, particularly peas and fruit trees. Bumblebees have longer proboscii (snouts) and tongues than other bees so can access nectar from deep flowers other species avoid, and using their sheer mass can shake pollen loose from some flowers with a loud buzz, called “buzz pollination”.
Although it’s honey bees in my hives, I have various other bee habitats around my garden. I’m keenly aware that as I monitor the honey bees’ progress, I’m also picking up information on the conditions for a range of other wild species, and if we want a healthy ecosystem and a wide variety of crops to eat, we will need them all.
Previous articles in this series are: